Category Archives: By: Brent Bailey

Advent Cheer

By: Brent Bailey

I started celebrating Advent when I realized I was pointed in the wrong direction.

For most of my life, even now, the rhythm orienting my life has been the school calendar. The way I define my place in time usually follows a certain pattern from “The semester’s just starting” to “Things are starting to pick up” to “It’s hectic midterm time” to “It’s like the calm before the storm” to “Don’t talk to me, it’s finals week” to “School’s out, and I’m free!” If you ask me how I’m doing, I’ll usually start my answer with one of those time markers. Describing myself in those terms forms my identity: Because the rhythm of my life is the rhythm of school, the label of “student” is closer to the center of how I perceive myself than many other labels.

In Desiring the Kingdom, James Smith describes how we’re constantly surrounded by different influences trying to form us and orient us and, ultimately, “determine what we love.” He calls those influences liturgies—collections of stories, images, ideals, practices, etc. that are powerful enough to determine for us what we dedicate our time, energy, and attention to. Smith describes a few different liturgies in United States culture, like the shopping mall or the stadium, that have been particularly effective. (The amount of time Americans spend over Thanksgiving shopping and watching football suggests he may be on to something.) Smith argues churches need to offer liturgy so robust it can counteract the pressures of those competing liturgies. The end result is that we’ll love God (and dedicate our time, energy, and attention to God) more than we love material possessions or a football team or anything else.

I don’t remember who it was that described the liturgical calendar to me as a rhythm orienting the lives of Christians. (The longer I stay in Bible college, the more all the books, lectures, and conversations blend together.) Having grown up in a Christian tradition that didn’t use the liturgical calendar, its language was mostly unfamiliar to me, but I started noticing how certain friends seemed to define their places in time by those Christian seasons: “I’m so ready for Advent to arrive.” “This season of Lent has been really rich for me.” I started to wonder whether planting myself on the Christian calendar could form my identity in the same way the school calendar had, whether it might help me to move that “Christian” label closer to the core of my identity.

A couple years ago, I started participating in the rhythm of Advent. Let me be honest: I’m still an Advent baby, and that means I’m still really bad at it—listening to Christmas music before Christmas, accidentally starting a Sunday early last year (Seriously, how hard is it to check a calendar?), that sort of stumbling. But I’ve noticed it’s already beginning to change the aroma of December for me, such that the culmination of Christmas isn’t the post-finals nap or the gift exchange or the viewing of A Christmas Story (Precious as those moments are!). It’s the arrival of Jesus, the one who comes to us where we are and gives us a new identity.

That’s the direction in which I want to move.

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Unavoidable Conflict

By: Brent Bailey

I’ve written a few times on this blog about the rich gifts I’ve encountered through my participation in house churches over the last two years. After spending the first 22 years of my life actively engaged in institutional Churches of Christ, I became interested in different approaches to the form and function of church and decided to investigate the simple church movement firsthand. Over the course of that experiment, the contrast between the two systems has been dramatic, with each challenging me and encouraging me in distinct ways.

 

For example: I don’t like conflict. I’d describe myself as what those in the personality-labeling business would label a “conflict avoider,” which means I do anything I can to deflect or prematurely alleviate friction. It’s much, much easier for me to avoid conflict in a church of 450 people than it is for me to avoid conflict in a church of 13 people. In the case of institutional churches, I’ve typically seen people handle conflict in two primary ways: One approach is to allow conflict to become divisive, with the result that conflict splits the church (either internally or externally). The other approach is to avoid conflict entirely, whether that occurs in the minds of individuals (“I’m just not going to bring this up.”) or in the collective consciousness of a congregation (“That’s just something we don’t talk about.”), with the result that unresolved conflict simmers and festers and rots. Because of my personality, I never want to be the source of division, so I’ve usually tended to ignore or suppress any of my feelings I perceive as negative. While that maintains the semblance of peace in my relationships, it also tends to cultivate a spirit of bitterness and resentment.

 

In the case of a house church, though, it’s much more difficult for me to avoid conflict. Maybe it’s because I’m much more directly active in each of our gatherings, such that silently stewing in a pew and slipping out early is not an option; maybe it’s because we strive for richer intimacy and sharing, and I’m never good enough at hiding my fear or anger for long; or maybe it’s because our weekly rhythms place us into direct contact so often that I quickly lose the stubbornness required to stifle my feelings. Whatever the reason, throughout my time in house churches, I’ve often surprised myself by expressing feelings I would have silenced in institutional churches.

 

The bad news is that house churches don’t necessarily handle conflict any better or worse than institutional churches. Disagreements can still become divisions, and those divisions can leave deep wounds. The good news is that I’ve begun to see how conflict can produce growth and maturity. About a month ago, I was wrestling with dissatisfaction about certain pieces of my church’s weekly rhythms, and the conflict avoider in me told me to keep my mouth shut. One morning’s reading in Ephesians 4, though, told me something different: “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” I realized I had a responsibility to confess my dissatisfaction for the sake of building up the body. Furthermore, I realized with no little gratitude that my church was a safe place that welcomed that difficult honesty. The conversation that resulted was fruitful and led to almost immediate changes in our practices.

 

Over the last two years, I’ve started keeping an unofficial list in my mind: “In my future, I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied with a church that doesn’t…” Here’s my latest addition to the list: In my future, I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied with a church that doesn’t make room for the kind of honesty that produces conflict, messy as that conflict might be.

 

What’s been your experience with conflict in church? Do you find yourself tempted to avoid conflict, and does your church setting enable that temptation?

Vulnerability is Contagious

By: Brent Bailey
October 11 marks the observation of National Coming Out Day, an annual celebration of those who have chosen to acknowledge their nontraditional sexual orientation or gender identity publicly. It’s always a profoundly tender day for me, because I’ve shared literally dozens of conversations over the last few years with friends and family in which I opened up about my own experiences of being attracted to men, and I’m familiar with the variety of emotions that particular self-disclosure has evoked in me: fear, insecurity, anticipation, relief, pride, delight, and, yes, tenderness. Telling someone else your experience of sexuality or gender is different from the norm is intimidating in the way transparency and vulnerability are always intimidating.

What initially surprised me throughout those conversations, and then stopped surprising me, was how often my self-disclosure about my sexual orientation would elicit self-disclosure from the person on the other side of the table. Sometimes they’d open up about their own sexuality, but often they’d open up about something unrelated. I came to realize vulnerability is contagious: So many of us are craving the opportunity to share something intensely personal about ourselves, and often all we need is some indication it’s safe for us to do so. Whenever I’d stumble through the words of telling someone I was gay and what that had meant for my life and my faith development, it set the tone for a sort of unguarded intimacy that was altogether refreshing for both of us.

Once I had encountered that kind of intimacy, though, a crisis emerged. I had tasted something sweet and rich and satisfying, and soon other contexts in which intimacy was unavailable began to taste less satisfying. Much to my dismay, I came to realize many of the communities that had functioned as church for me throughout my life would no longer quench my thirst for openness and sincerity. This wasn’t some sort of exhibitionist narcissism, a need to tell everyone everything about me and my sexuality; it was simply the realization that the church was better at doing what church was meant to do for me when I didn’t feel a concern or obligation to hide parts of myself from it. In some churches, my particular brand of vulnerability wasn’t welcome—the way people talked and whispered and joked made it clear they weren’t prepared to respond to my orientation with compassion and sensitivity. In other churches, it seemed as though no vulnerability at all was welcome, regardless of the content—members would move about with shallow chats and superficial prayers, leaving the impression candor was inappropriate and out of place.

When National Coming Out Day arrives this year, my hope is that Christians will be able to see through all the political and social noise about same-sex relationships to recognize how beautiful and affecting it is when someone takes the risk of inviting others into closer, more intimate relationship by demonstrating transparency. Perhaps in those churches in which vulnerability seems inappropriate, that example could challenge people to live into a new reality in which members share deeper intimacy. In the very best cases, one person’s vulnerability prompts vulnerability from others, and taking that risk of knowing each other better empowers us to love each other better.

On to Something (Part 2)

housechurch

By: Brent Bailey

I remember the second time I knew we were on to something.

The “we” there is, again, the house church in which I’ve participated over the last year or so. This particular “time” came late in the spring, after we’d been meeting together consistently for about seven months. By that time, we’d shared many sacred moments with each other, whether we were introducing the important stories from our lives or reading the Scriptures together or erupting, on many occasions, into laughter or tears or increasingly-un-self-conscious dance moves.

On this particular night late in the spring, everyone except Priscilla knew what was coming because Matt had told everyone but her. Matt had decided, you see, that he was going to propose to Priscilla, and our church rejoiced at the thought of how God would use each of these two precious people in marriage with one another. After considering what setting in the city of Abilene would be the most appropriate and meaningful context for them to make this commitment-to-commit to one another, Matt decided he would propose during one of our weekly church gatherings.

The New Testament is rife with language and imagery that describes the church primarily as a family of faith. For those who may have lost relationships when they converted to Christianity, or for those who were geographically distant from their relatives, or for those who merely needed a strong social support system to practice the counter-cultural way of Jesus (i.e., everyone who converted), the local church was a place in which Christians experienced something close to Jesus’ promise of “homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields” (Mark 10:30). I happened to grow up in a family environment that left me with positive connotations for words like “brother” and “mother” and “father,” so I always cherished the idea that church could foster relationships with that kind of trust, familiarity, and mutual I’ve-got-your-back assurance. And to be sure, I experienced brilliant flashes of this reality throughout my years growing up in churches.

Somewhere along the way with this house church, though, I began to recognize that family language was more appropriate for our community than it had ever been with any of my other churches. The people in my house church were the ones I knew and trusted and for whom I felt a joyful obligation, regardless of my mood, to offer my truck to help them move or to cover for a meal or to spend hours at a time listening. (More often, I was on the receiving end of those acts of service.) I discovered parents who could instruct me, siblings who could encourage me, and children I wanted to protect and cherish.

So when Matt decided he would propose at a house church gathering, it felt right, and it felt good. It felt like the kind of sacred moment families share with each other, the kind we eagerly anticipated and cried throughout and will fondly remember for years to come. It’s moments like these that make me grateful God places us into churches, and it’s moments like these that will make it difficult for me to settle for any congregation in the future in which I can’t rightly call my fellow Christians “brother” and “sister” with all the intimate connotations of the terms.

Loving the Church

By: Brent Bailey

A few weeks ago, a friend in his mid-20s opened a sermon with this statement: “I love the church. I really do. It’s because you’re family, right? But I don’t just love this church. I love the Church with a capital ‘C,’ the body of Christ.” He continued later in the sermon: “It’s really rare…and it’s even weird for a person my age to say those four words I started with: ‘I love the Church.'” From my particular corner of the mid-20s demographic, I can say my experience has been similar to his. It is uncommon for my peers to express love for the Church, and even those who are Christians often express some kind of love-hate attitude toward the visible Church that’s more severely ambivalent than a mere acknowledgment of the movement’s flaws. You may have seen the recent editorial from Rachel Held Evans that explored the negative attitudes many younger people hold toward the Church. That article has tapped into a fascinating ongoing conversation about how or whether the Church should change in light of cultural trends, about the evolving face of global Christianity, about the Church’s remarkable propensity to survive, even flourish, in the face of seemingly hostile circumstances.

After a summer working in Chicago and connecting with the gay community here, I’ll confess our cultural situation often leaves me feeling stuck. On the one hand, I do love the Church, too, and I’m of the conviction that its ministry of reconciliation to God is the remedy to the ways the world is broken. I want to see people involve themselves in ongoing relationship with God in the Church because I think that’s where life flourishes. On the other hand, many of the people to whom I’m connected—including, in particular, gay and lesbian friends—have little or no interest in the Church, or they’re openly antagonistic to it. It’s difficult for me to discern whether their opposition is the kind that has kept vast numbers of people disinterested in the Church since its inception or whether my generation is offering powerful prophetic words about ways in which the Church in our particular time and place legitimately does need to repent and evolve.

As a child of the Stone-Campbell movement, I inherited a certain way of thinking about church and my involvement in it that essentially set aside the traditions and structures of the most seasoned Christian establishments in an attempt to restore the framework of the early churches in the New Testament. My own personal movement from participating in institutional Churches of Christ (On the scale from “High Church” to “Low Church,” the denomination is one of the Low-est.) to organic house churches (even Low-er) felt natural, even inevitable, as I engaged questions my upbringing stimulated: What was the purpose of church for the people who followed Jesus, and what sort of community would serve the same purpose for followers of Jesus today? What are the nonnegotiables of the Christian faith we ought to defend, and what are the marginal issues that have needlessly divided us? As one of my professors continually asks: Where did Jesus go to church?

The nature and expression of Christian faith continues to evolve and develop in different directions around the world. As far as I’m concerned, here’s what’s not at stake: The Church is going to endure regardless of how our world transforms, and it’s going to continue serving imperfectly in the ministry of reconciling the world to God, and it’s going to do so in the hands-on work of engaging people from all walks of life. Here’s what is at stake: I believe the Church is in a position to become an even more compelling portrait of the multifaceted wisdom of God as it recognizes and cherishes the Spirit gifts each of its members possesses. I believe the Church has the capacity to manifest an increasingly alternative reality in which Jesus is king, with the result that it undermines the values of a culture that worships other gods. And I believe more people from my generation will grow to love the Church—many already do, of course—as it continues to be a place in which they find the opportunity to encourage and be encouraged by other people committed to growing into disciples of Jesus.

On to Something

By: Brent Bailey

I remember the first time I knew we were on to something.

The “we” in that sentence was a house church with whom I’d been meeting for about three months. The “time” happened once we’d developed a fairly consistent rhythm for our weekly gatherings, which included eating together, encouraging one another, listening to God, and sharing communion. As was our custom, we passed the bread and the juice around the circle, each of us extending words of blessing along with the elements: “The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ that sets you free.” On this particular night, I was seated next to Natalia, the youngest child in our community, who took her turn in the order and spoke directly to me with delicate, quiet grace: “The body of Christ. The blood of Christ.”

I grew up participating in churches that treasured the practice of communion, enacting it weekly and often structuring entire worship services in such a way as to make it the climactic moment of the assembly.  I learned that sharing in this feast we identified as a remembrance was inextricably connected to who we were as a body and what we wanted to be about when we gathered. The care and solemnity that accompanied the sacrament taught me more powerfully than any sermon could that sharing the body and blood of Christ was a momentous event.

Because of how much we treasured the practice, those churches had long conversations about how to do it properly: what kind of food comprised the elements, who should or shouldn’t distribute the trays of bread and juice, what we should say and when we should say it. When I transitioned from a large church into a house church, those logistical questions started to feel mostly irrelevant; but even as the form in which I took communion shifted, the weightiness of the practice remained for me. Sharing in this feast was still inextricably connected to who we were as a body, small as we were, and what we wanted to be about when we gathered.

So when this young girl served me communion and spoke the words of blessing to me—something that wouldn’t have happened in the churches where I grew up—I recognized immediately how powerful and extraordinary the moment was. I caught a glimpse, if only fleeting, of what it might mean to “be one in Christ Jesus,” to be part of a community in which there’s “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, [neither] male nor female.” I heard the voice of Jesus in the timbre of Natalia’s soprano and saw his gentleness in her careful attempts to keep the cup from spilling on the carpet. It was entirely ordinary—as ordinary as a family dinner—but it was wondrous and supernatural and glorious, as life in the church ought to be.

That was the moment I knew we were approaching something holy and when I found myself compelled, maybe more than I’d ever felt, to continue pursuing tangible expressions of the body of Christ.